108. Formal and Informal Words

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REMOVE = TAKE AWAY

REMOVE = TAKE AWAY

Many informal English words have a Latin-derived formal synonym

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THE NATURE & USE OF FORMAL WORDS

Sometimes the difference between two words of similar meaning is not so much what they mean as where they are used (see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words). This is the case, for example, with scapulas and shoulder blades, the former being common in medical English, the latter in everyday speech (see 77. Apposition).

A large area of English that often expresses meanings with different words from those of ordinary speech (and occasionally with different grammar too) is academic and professional writing. Its special language is, in fact, the basis of the “formal style” that it is said to normally have. A very important point about this language is that it is not something impressive to achieve, but rather a means of avoiding certain kinds of undesirable language. Hence knowing what language is undesirable in formal writing is at least as important as knowing what to replace it with (see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”).

An interesting feature of formal-sounding words is that they are usually derived from Latin, the language of the ancient Roman rulers of Europe 2000 years ago, rather than Old English. Most were imported into English via French after England came under French-speaking monarchs 1000 years ago (see 135. French Influences on English Vocabulary). This link between formal language and historical rulers of England makes sense because both represent power.

An earlier Guinlist post (45. Latin Clues to English Spelling) looks at the spelling of Latin-derived words in formal English. A later one (130. Formal Abbreviations) presents common Latin abbreviations in this kind of English. In this post I wish to look in more detail at how “Latinate” words typically replace non-Latinate words in English so as to achieve formality.

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FORMAL EQUIVALENTS OF TWO-WORD VERBS

A very large category of formal English words is Latinate verbs with the same meaning as everyday two-word verbs. Two-word verbs tend to be combinations of simple English verbs with either a preposition (making “prepositional” verbs like LEAD TO and COPE WITH – see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions) or an adverb (making “phrasal” verbs like MAKE OUT or GIVE UP – see 139. Phrasal Verbs). Prepositional verbs always have a following noun (”object”), which must be placed after the preposition, whereas phrasal verbs may have no object, and if there is one, it may come before the adverb as well as after.

Latinate verbs have various recognizable features. Many are combinations of a Latin preposition, such as ex-, con- or ab-, and a simple Latin verb like duc, tain or pel (for more, see 45. Latin Clues to English Spelling). Ability to be made into a noun with -ment, -ence, -ance, -al, -sion, -tion or -ation is also a good clue.

Here are some common two-word verbs and their Latinate equivalents:

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1. Prepositional Verbs

ASK FOR = REQUEST

COME AFTER = FOLLOW

COME UP TO = REACH/ATTAIN

DEAL WITH = MANAGE

GO BEFORE = PRECEDE

GO OUT OF = EXIT

LEAD TO = CAUSE

LOOK AT = REGARD

LOOK FOR = SEEK

LOOK INTO = INVESTIGATE

LOOK LIKE = RESEMBLE

PUT UP WITH = TOLERATE

REFER TO = CONSULT

SETTLE FOR = CHOOSE

SPEAK TO = ADDRESS

TALK ABOUT = DISCUSS/CONSIDER

THINK ABOUT = CONSIDER/PONDER

THINK OF = CONCEIVE

WAIT FOR = AWAIT

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2. Phrasal Verbs

BREAK DOWN = FAIL/COLLAPSE

BREAK OFF = SUSPEND/ADJOURN

BREAK UP = DISINTEGRATE

BRING IN = INTRODUCE

COME BACK = RETURN

COME/GO IN = ENTER

GET AWAY = ESCAPE

GO AHEAD = PROCEED

GO AWAY = LEAVE/DEPART

GIVE/BRING BACK = RETURN

GIVE IN = YIELD

GIVE OUT = DISTRIBUTE

GIVE UP = QUIT

LINK UP = CONNECT

MAKE OUT = DISCERN

MAKE UP = INVENT

PUT/SET DOWN = DEPOSIT

SET OUT (1) = DISPLAY

SET OUT (2) = DEPART

TAKE AWAY = REMOVE

THROW AWAY = DISCARD

THROW OUT = EJECT

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A notable trend among phrasal verbs is the likelihood of those with back to match Latinate verbs with re-. Thus, GO BACK = RETURN, GET BACK = REGAIN, LOOK BACK = REVIEW, PUSH BACK = REPEL and SEND BACK = RETURN.

English has many other two-word verbs with a Latinate equivalent. If in formal writing you can think only of a two-word verb for the meaning you want, you can try consulting a thesaurus for a one-word equivalent. Note, though, that some two-word verbs contain a Latinate verb and are likely as a result not to be informal. Examples are ALLUDE TO, APPROVE OF, DEPEND ON, DISPENSE WITH, DISPOSE OF, INSIST ON and RESULT IN.

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FORMAL QUANTITY WORDS

Another area of English that often has formal and informal equivalents is adverbs showing different strengths of a following adjective or adverb – so-called “adverbs of degree”. Consider this example:

(a) The task was a bit easier than before.

The underlined words are very informal. It is more formal to say a little, and more formal again to say slightly (a word of English rather than Latin origin).The main adverbs of degree that possess a more formal equivalent are as follows. The underlined ones are especially conversational.

a bit/a little = slightly

pretty/quite/fairly/rather = appreciably, moderately

really/very = extremely, hugely

a lot/far/much (+ comparative) = considerably

More about the difference between very and much is in the post 98. “Very”, “Much” and “Very Much”.

As well as going with adjectives and adverbs, a bit and a lot can accompany a verb, e.g. works a bit/a lot. The formal equivalent of a bit used like this is a little or a small amount. Instead of a lot there are numerous possibilities. One can nearly always say very much or a great deal, but particular verbs also allow one or more alternatives (most of which are listed in advanced English coursebooks). For example, with works one might say hard, with hopes fervently, with depends greatly (or heavily), with deny strenuously, and with needs desperately. With verbs of change, like CHANGE, INCREASE and FALL, there is an especially wide choice – see 115. Surveying Numerical Data for details.

There is also a pronoun use of a bit and a lot, e.g. earns a bit/a lot. Here, a bit is replaceable again by a little/a small amount, but a lot sometimes needs very much/a great deal and sometimes very many or a great many, depending on whether it represents an uncountable noun or a countable one like this:

(b) Poisonous snakes are abundant, but a great many are very shy.

A lot can also be used informally with of before a noun instead of a more precise number (see 95. Hedging 1: Numbers & Generalizations). In formal writing, it can be replaced by many or various, but a more impressive Latinate equivalent is numerous.

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OTHER FORMAL EQUIVALENTS

The verb GET is another informal word that is especially productive of Latinate alternatives. This is because it has so many different meanings. In the following sentences, a different formal equivalent of GET is needed each time:

(c) The atmosphere seems to be getting hotter all the time.

(d) Visitors can get a pass from the main office.

(e) British citizens get a letter from the Monarch when they reach 100.

(f) It is easy to get a flight from Jakarta to Australia.

(g) The treatment of cancer is getting better all the time.

In (c), one can use becoming or growing, neither of which is Latinate. In (d), the word is obtain, in (e) receive, in (f) catch or arrange and in (g) improving.

Some -ly adverbs drop this ending in informal spoken usage: for example, one often hears go slow instead of go slowly. More on this is in the post 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs.

Care should be taken to choose the right alternative to the informal word big. Speakers of Latin-derived languages – Catalan, French, Italian, Portuguese, Rumanian, Spanish – tend to replace it incorrectly with important or significant because similar-looking words in those languages do have the meaning of big. In English, these words say nothing about size but are more to do with role. The main formal synonyms of big are large, great and major (not huge, which means very big – see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words).

Large seems to be preferred with concrete nouns like room, vehicle or animal, and great must be used when there is a suggestion of “imposing”, “special”, “famous” or “wonderful” (e.g. Alexander The Great, great amenities). Otherwise, with non-concrete (abstract) nouns, a choice between large and great often seems to depend on the noun being described, in other words to be a matter of “collocation”. Here are some typical abstract partners of large and great (the underlined ones also allow major):

Abstract Nouns Requiring “large”

 a factor, a group, a kind, a number, a quantity, a role, a scale, a surplus, a value.

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Abstract Nouns Requiring “great”

accuracy, an achievement, charm, a deal, dignity, a discovery, an effect, importance, interest, a loss, meaning, a mistake, a need, relevance, resolve, responsibility, significance, success, a success, understanding, value, a welcome.

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Abstract Nouns Allowing Either

an amount, an extent, a part, a range, a rate, a step.

Two nouns that need to be avoided in formal writing are thing (countable) and stuff (uncountable). Replacements often depend on context, but common thing words include object, item and idea, and stuff words include material, substance and matter.

Lastly, the words good and bad, which each possess numerous meanings, are often replaced with more precise Latinate equivalents. Words meaning good include appropriate, attractive, beneficial, desirable, effective, enjoyable, pleasant, suitable and virtuous, while equivalents of bad include damaging, harmful, problematic, troublesome, undesirable, unhealthy, unpleasant and unwanted. More can be found with a thesaurus.

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10 thoughts on “108. Formal and Informal Words

  1. Please I want to know if the verb ‘help’ is formal, informal, or neutral as we can substitute it with ‘assist’. because i think it is neutral!

    • Hi. Thanks for your useful question. I would agree with you that “help” is neutral – lots of examples of it appear if you analyse formal writing, while of course it is also common in everyday usage. “Assist”, on the other hand, is more formal-sounding, as you would expect of a verb borrowed from French. The possibility of a word being neutral rather than formal or informal always has to be borne in mind. Another example is “many”, with its formal equivalent “numerous” and informal one “lots of”.

  2. Please anyone send me informal words for the following formal words conclude, practice, support, equipped, offensive, discard, permitted, obtain, termination, retain

    • There are not informal versions of every word from Latin. For example, there are no informal equivalents for the words “practice” or “offensive” or even “equipped”.
      The informal form of the word “conclude” depends on which meaning of the verb you are referring to. When the word “conclude” is used to mean “to end, to bring to an end”, the verb “end” or “stop” is probably the best informal translation. But when it is used to mean “Decide/ deduce”, there are several possibilities, like “come to a decision”, “figure out”, “choose”, or in the case where you are deciding your opinion on something rather than deducing a fact from the rules of logic, the best translation is “to make up (one’s) mind”.
      The informal equivalent of “support” is “help”, but this translation works best when talking about helping someone do a task, not when talking about supporting someone emotionally. The literal meaning of support as in a chair supporting the weight of a person would be translated as “to hold up”.
      The informal form of “discard” is “throw away”, or in the case that you are not disposing of the item but giving the item away to someone involuntarily like handing over illegal items to the police, or as a self-sacrifice, the phrase “give up” or “give away” is most appropriate.
      A synonym for “permitted” is “allowed”, but as this word is also from Latin, I don’t think it is any less formal. An antonym (word with the opposite meaning) of “permitted” is “forbidden”, so you could say “not forbidden” to mean “permitted”, but the word “forbidden”, while it is a native English word and not borrowed from Latin, it is still rather formal because it is an archaic word that is not used much nowadays except in formal writing. In informal language, English speakers just do not use the word “permitted”.They say “You may ___” or “You may not ____”, or in even less formal language and rather incorrectly many people would say “You can ____” or “You can’t ____”. Signs forbidding certain activities in certain areas will say “No X-ing. For example, a building might have a sign on it that says “No Smoking”, which means smoking is not allowed in that building, or a pond might have a sign that says “No Swimming”.
      The informal form of “obtain” is quite easy, it is the verb “get”. In everday speech, I never use the word “obtain”, only in formal writing, otherwise I say “get”. The word “obtain” is so extremely formal that if you say it in everyday speech people will think you are a pretentious snob, when there is the much more common, albeit more ambiguous alternative word “get”.
      “Termination” is probably best translated as “ending” or “stopping point”. If you are talking about being terminated from a job, the best translation is “leaving the job”. If your boss told you that you no longer work at your job or poor performance, you could say you were “fired from your job”, but if you left voluntarily, you can say you “quit the job”, and if you quit the job and planned to live the rest of your life without working, you could say that you “retired”. In the case that your boss decided that you no longer work for him but he did not do so because of your poor performance but because he could not afford to pay all his workers and had to cut certain positions, it is better to say “I was laid-off” than “I was fired”, because if you say “I was fired”, it suggests you did something wrong.
      The informal form of “retain” is also pretty easy, it is “keep”.

      • Thanks for these instructive observations. Thanks especially for clarifying that not all Latin words are informal and not all have a non-Latin equivalent – something I thought I was saying but on re-reading I see was not clear enough.

  3. I read this post that is very much useful.But there must be more on this topic then how I get more on this.Does your book contain more about this topic.Besides this I have two confusing questions that have to be answered.The first question is” I was born”.In this question the verb “was” is passive or what.The other questions are ” I was happy or I was scared or I was shocked”.In these or others like these,the verb is passive or please explain the meaning of these mentioned questions especially the meaning of I was born.I do not know which book I follow.Would you suggest me a book that can help to understand these topics very well.Please suggest me a book that would be helpful to me because yoy know various books that would help me learning English.Whichever book you suggest I must buy that.I would be grateful if you suggest me a book.Thank you.

    • Thanks for your feedback. No, my book does not contain more on this topic: the book is about grammar, and this topic mostly involves vocabulary. In general, some of what is in the book is also in the blog, but in such cases the amount of detail will be greater in one or the other. If the blog and book were the same, nobody would buy the book! For more on the topic of informal vocabulary, have a look at the Learning Materials page, where there is a relevant worksheet. As for your grammar questions, I regret that I cannot answer them here: they are not the kind of grammar that the blog is about, and they are not connected to the post above. Sorry.

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